How to Make Cities Greener for All

New research shows that proximity to green space is an important social determinant of health. So how can we work toward more equitable access?

By Alex Tzelnic

Think about your local walk to the park. You head down that shady street, turn left at the corner store, cut up that little alleyway, and – voila! – you are surrounded by bounding dogs, trees, and giggling children. Or maybe not. Maybe you have to navigate an urban obstacle course littered with poorly thought out street crossings, concrete corridors, and broken glass. Maybe you can’t even get to a park without seeking out some mode of transportation. Our access to green space, it turns out, is not as equitable as we might think. This is a problem.

Most of us are aware that green space is good. But we tend to conceive of it as good in the same way that we conceive of art as good: it’s enriching, potentially stimulating, and aesthetically pleasing. We don’t think of it as an essential good the way that we do exercise or clean water. Yet new research is making it clear that perhaps we ought to. With more than half of the world’s population living in urban areas (and that percentage expected to rise to more than two-thirds by 2050), the ability of our cities to offer accessible green space for everyone will be crucial to maintaining healthy, happy populaces (and, to a smaller degree, a healthy planet).

Dr. Kathleen Wolf, a researcher at the University of Washington College of the Environment, has spent much of her career thinking about this issue. She is the director of the UW Human Dimensions of Urban Forestry and Urban Greening project, and has worked with the US Department of Agriculture Forest Service to better understand the public impact of nature. That impact, it turns out, is pretty significant.

Here in the US we’re spending $3.3 trillion dollars a year on healthcare, which is close to 18% of the GDP,” says Wolf. “And the forecast is that those costs will continue to rise. As such, the public health community is becoming much more interested in what they term the ‘social determinants’ of health. That includes the full array of influences of our health on a daily basis. Quality housing, access to nutritional food, access to good education, all of that.  “Our green spaces in our communities are one of those social determinants.” So rather than simply treating the issues that arise, perhaps a more holistic approach can address and mitigate those issues before they crop up.

The research has shown that access to green space leads to better weight management, reduced stress and anxiety, reduction of chronic disease, lower blood pressure, and improved mental health. And that is just to name a few. Yet the way in which green space is laid out in urban areas is haphazard at best, and often unfairly related to socioeconomic factors.

“In many cities the presence of green space is very opportunistic,” says Wolf. “Someone donated a property. ‘Alright, let’s make a park.’ Here’s an abandoned railway. ‘Cool, let’s make a rails-to-trails.’ Generally these amenities are associated with more affluent communities. They haven’t been seen as essential elements in a city. But now because we understand how essential they are to quality of life and human health and wellness, I think we’re understanding that this is really an important thing to have in every community.”

Part of the problem is that when we think about green space, we don’t think about the typology surrounding it. Wolf cites a World Health Organization recommendation that cities should provide 9 square meters per capita of green space within a 15 minute walk per individual. “It’s a start,” she says, “but it doesn’t say anything about where the green space is located, the size of the parcels, what the connectivity is, the quality of that green space, and how adequately the facilities within it serve different people.” In looking at the typology Wolf aims to help cities ensure that it is not just the privileged and affluent that can reap the benefits of parks and trees. It’s not enough to divide the population of a city by the number of parks. By taking a macro perspective and looking at quality and access, cities can truly assess whether or not all people are able to reap the benefits of green space.

So how can we, as citizens, help to create available green spaces for all? “At the very grassroots level, work with other people of like interest to identify they places where parks can happen,” explains Wolf. “Work with your city leadership to ask, ‘Hey we’ve got a place where we have the interest, how do we access resources to make this change?’ Sometimes there’s a vacant lot and people will start a community garden. There’s a little bit of guerrilla activity at this level.”

In addition to this kind of community work, Wolf recommends reaching out to conservancies like the Trust for Public Land, the Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club, or the Wildlife Society. Many of these organizations now have urban initiatives and welcome local participation. Lastly, suggests Wolf, “Get in the ear of urban planners. Find the people that are down in the ranks in your city that have been trying to shoulder into all of this for decades and pull them up into the ranks of strategic planning.”

Some cities are taking action. Singapore is paving (or perhaps “seeding”) the way as a model for other densely populated cities. And the Atlanta BeltLine is a large scale and impressive effort for green redevelopment right here in America. Given the critical state or our planet and the fragile state of many of our communities, finding a way to make cities greener is imperative. Nature is no longer something that we can afford to think of as “out there” in the wilderness, beyond our skyscrapers.

“Think of nature experiences as equivalent to food,” concludes Wolf. “We need a constant supply of nutritional food every day, every few hours. Once in a while we really enjoy a Thanksgiving feast or a meal out with friends, and that’s nice, but that doesn’t sustain us. Nearby nature in our cities is what sustains us.”

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